New York based Howardena Pindell is an African American abstract artist whose work deals with issues of feminism, racism, slavery, and exploitation. Pindell’s work over the last fifty years ranged from her early representational paintings, such as self-portraits, still-life paintings, and urban scenes to the densely collaged abstract canvases she produced starting in the late 1960s. These paintings on paper featured hole-punched dots, layered grids, and layered surfaces that introduced light and shadows into her work.
From the 1980s, Pindell made videos. Her blurry, enigmatic “Video Drawings” consists of photographed TV screens overlaid with sheets of acetate and scattered with tiny, hand-drawn numbers.
Pindell received a B.F.A. at Boston University where she trained as a figurative academic painter. She received her M.F.A. from Yale University in 1967 and shifted away from figuration into Abstract Expressionism under the influence of Al Held, one of her teachers, and Helen Frankenthaler, a visiting artist who was encouraging to her. After graduation she found an inhospitable reception in New York. She was going against the widespread expectation that young African American artists should only create work about political or social issues. She was told by the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem that she should “go downtown and show with the white boys” when she shared her abstract work with him.
In 1967, she applied for a teaching position and sent out 50 applications She received 50 rejections. She then looked was for any job she could find and wound up in a vibrant New York art scene where Abstract Expressionism was being revived. She worked in the curatorial ranks at the Museum of Modern Art and began teaching at what is now Stony Brook University and has been there since 1979.
Inspired by African textiles she saw in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1972 and by a 1973 trip through East and West Africa, where she saw kente cloth in Ghana and Nigerian textiles, Pindell took the canvas off the stretcher and sewed the canvas strips together. She then covered them with paint, glitter, thread, and craft materials in the style of the Pattern and Decoration movement.
The hole punch has been Pindell’s favorite tool. She became fixated on the shape when she remembered that red dots were affixed to the bottom of root beer mugs when she was a child. The red dot “designated that the glassware could be used by nonwhites.” Putting it in her art allowed her to reclaim it. “I get great pleasure out of punching holes” and used the hole punch to modify sheets of metal and paper, turning them into spray paint stencils. She then used the leftover confetti-like disks to make pointillist collages with added glitter, talcum powder, etc. One example, shown in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 2019 Outliers Exhibition was a 1977 mixed-media work of small rectangular pieces of linen, loosely stitched together and overlaid with hole punched paper dots, mixed with paint and glitter. This work showed how she melded abstract painting, structured on a grid, with the craft of traditional quilt-making.
When she discovered that she was allergic to oil paint, she turned to acrylic and spray paint and exhibited her work sporadically at small galleries, which showed art of African Americans and other minorities.
In 1979, Pindell suffered a shattering memory loss from a near-fatal car accident. Her work became more autobiographical as she tried to heal herself and piece together her lost memories. Eight months after the accident, Pindell made a 12-minute video “Free, White, and 21.” It is political art and Pindell’s best-known video as it detailed the racism that she and her mother endured throughout their lives. She portrays the two main characters: herself and the bigoted white woman as referenced in the video’s title. Pindell wears a mask and a blonde wig as her white character dismisses the experiences of racism, relayed in the video.
Her installation “Hunger” dealt with the use of New York canals as conduits for abolitionists to transport and house slaves during the 18th century. It included a set of 18th-century shackles used on enslaved children.
Pindell constantly addresses racism and sexism that she faced in the art world. In 1972, she was one of the co-founders of the A.I.R. Gallery, the first all female cooperative art space in the country. She was the only person of color among the 20 cofounding members. When she brought up the injustices she faced as a Black woman, the other artists were not only uninterested but even became hostile to her concerns. She left the group in 1975. Years later she and Carolyn Martin founded “Entitled: Black Women Artists,” a co-operative for only black female artists.
There was a survey of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Her art was shown at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 2019, she received a College Art Association Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement; the George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award; the Artist Legacy Foundation’s 2019 Artist Award; the Archives of American Art Medal; and became a distinguished professor at Stony Brook University.
Her work is in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum, Newark Museum, Fogg Museum in Boston, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.